Close encounters with the Galapagos Giant Tortoise

For me, a day of travel is always a solid 7 out of 10. Always good, with room for improvement.

A great meal, a sunset with an ice cold beer, new friends, a chat with a cool local, all of these things can push the score up to near perfect.

But sometimes I have a day that cannot be measured in anything less than joy and gratitude to simply be alive to witness it. I know that sounds sappy, but it’s true and I had quite a few immeasurable days on the Galapagos Islands.

Friends from the Galapagos Double-Barrelled Travel

One reason why we didn’t want to leave the Galapagos – we’d made good friends there!

An unforgettable time on the Galapagos

On the final night of our 4 day tour around the Galapagos Islands on board the Seaman Journey, our guide Geoffrey invited all the passengers and crew to gather in the stern for a cocktail at 7 pm sharp.

For many of us it was the final night on board, the end of a holiday or the start of a new phase of travel. So we charged our glasses, said cheers and shared the glow of this very special place.

One by one, Geoff asked us to describe to the crew what our experience of the Galapagos was like.

Unlike many other tour ships, the Seaman Journey employs locals rather than crew from mainland Ecuador, and this is a more expensive option, but their local knowledge and passion for the islands more than makes up for it. On this final night, they were very keen to know what we thought.

Galapagos giant tortoise shell yawn Double-Barrelled Travel

A Galapagos Giant Tortoise shows his gums as he yawns

Words can’t describe the uniqueness of the Galapagos

Unusually for me, I kept quiet. At the time, I couldn’t express what I felt in words. My experience of the Galapagos was a feeling, a very rare one that I have only had on special occasions in my life.

On reflection, the words now come a bit easier.

Visiting the Galapagos was like the first time I hit a home run in tee-ball; finishing a sailing race victorious in my home town Perth at sunset; or when I saw my wife walk down the aisle on our wedding day.

It’s a tight fist in my stomach, something akin to pure excitement and exhilaration that courses though my veins. It heightens the senses, making me feel and hear and smell everything, as intoxicating as fear but as calming as a kiss.

I felt that sensation when I went ashore on North Seymour Island in the Galapagos on our first day. I’ll never forget the smell of dry shrubs and sea salt, the crashing of the Pacific waves and the corrugated cries of the booby and frigate birds. I knew instinctively that I was walking on special ground, somewhere precious and unique in all the world.

That feeling came back even stronger when we visited a sanctuary for Galapagos Giant Tortoises on the island of San Cristobal, the fifth largest and easternmost island of the Galapagos archipelago.

Young Galapagos giant tortoise Double-Barrelled Travel

A young Galapagos Giant Tortoise rests his weary legs

An unforgettable introduction to the Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Me and the gang from the Seaman Journey boarded our trusty ‘panga’ inflatable boats and whizzed to the shore where we got on a bus that drove us from the red hot coast to the misty coolness of the highlands where the Galapagos Giant Tortoise likes to live.

I could barely believe my own eyes when I saw one for the first time. They are bigger in the flesh than in the pictures and strangely majestic for things that move so very, very slowly.

Carmen in a Galapagos giant tortoise shell on Santa Cruz Double-Barrelled Travel

Carmen demonstrates just how large the Galapagos Giant Tortoises grow by getting in a shell from a 150 year old tortoise

The history of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos Giant Tortoises are endemic to the archipelago and each island where they are found has a different species. Some have longer necks to eat tall cacti or different shaped shells to allow varying kinds of movement. They are held up as good examples of evolution, how a species adapts and changes to suit the particular conditions it confronts.

Despite their beauty to us in the modern age, back in the day Galapagos Giant Tortoises were seen as food. Whalers, fishermen and military vessels caught these lumbering beasts by the tens of thousands and kept them as livestock for their long voyages. Their numbers got so low that in the 1970s a number of captive breeding programmes were set up to help them recover.

The programme on San Cristobal has been very successful and we saw at least half a dozen adults ambling around the bush, eating leaves and taking a dip in a water pool to cool off from the midday heat.

Galapagos giant tortoise cooling off Double-Barrelled Travel

A Galapagos Giant Tortoise cools off in the midday heat

Baby Galapagos Giant Tortoise

The baby tortoises and teenagers in their pens were a real highlight and I watched them with utter fascination. Introduced pests like wild dogs and goats are a huge threat to baby tortoises in the wild so breeding them in captivity just about ensures their survival by 100%.

When they are old enough, the tortoises are released into bigger pens that simulate wild conditions so they can learn to live independently. It’s kind of like a school for them!

I always thought a big ticket animal like a lion or a shark would set my heart racing but the Giant Galapagos Tortoise blew me away. They have such personality and grace and presence.

They are unmissable.

Baby Galapagos giant tortoise Double-Barrelled Travel

A tiny baby Galapagos Giant Tortoise that wasn’t so giant

It seemed to be mating season when we were on the Galapagos because we saw the Galapagos Giant Tortoise mating a few times. The male chases the female (it’s the fastest you’ll ever see them move!) before finally catching up to her and then mounting her, making loud grunting sounds as he gets on with business.

Check out our video below to see them in action!

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz

After Carmen and I (reluctantly!) left the Seaman Journey, we spent another five days exploring a few other islands. We also went under the waves to explore the sea with eight scuba dives. On our final day in the Galapagos we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz.

There is a captive breeding programme there too and we walked there very early in the morning. No one was around when we arrived and as we approached the Galapagos Giant Tortoise enclosure every single one of them raised their long necks and stared at us! It was a magic moment I will never forget.

Galapagos giant tortoise looking Double-Barrelled Travel

A Galapagos Giant Tortoise looks at us over the wall

After a while we figured out they thought we were there to feed them.

There were big bunches of leaves in piles for them to eat so we passed a few leaves over the wall and watched them devour them in seconds. That’s definitely one thing they do fast – check out the video below to see the feeding in action.

I was sad to leave the Galapagos. But I’m also relieved that so many people care about the place and are working hard to ensure the unique species that live there are being preserved. It’s not perfect yet, there is much more to be done, but it’s good to know that when I’m long dead the Galapagos Giant Tortoises I saw will probably still be munching away!

What you need to know 

Cost – The Galapagos Giant Tortoise Sanctuary on San Cristobal is free to visit, as is the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Where – The sanctuary on San Cristobal is a 5 km hike from the main settlement or a 10 minute taxi or bus ride. A taxi will set you back about five dollars, a bus less.

When to go – Early! It gets hot on Santa Cruz very quickly and the Charles Darwin Research Centre is on the coast where the sun burns brightest. The sanctuary on San Cristobal is higher up and cooler but can still get scorching.

Thanks to the Seaman Journey for making our trip possible. For more information on their cruises, visit their website.

Galapagos giant tortoise face Double-Barrelled Travel

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

4 comments on “Close encounters with the Galapagos Giant Tortoise”

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